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Designers, start dropping the C bomb when you talk about accessibility

by Dennii Stanbridge

You may not realise it, but you’re probably struggling with some form of physical or sensory affliction right now.

You’re on the tram, one hand steadying you against the commuter crush while the other fiddles with your phone. Perhaps you’ve indulged in a late-night karaoke session and woken up with a ‘lost voice’. Or maybe, like me, you’re caught in the din of a ‘90s Greatest Hits playlist, thanks to some over-excited colleagues ringing in the start of the weekend. You might not consider any of this to be fundamentally debilitating, but there’s a reason you should. And that reason is context.

Dropping the C bomb

As a user experience designer, I’m obsessed with context. Why? Because nothing exists in a vacuum all by itself without any external influence (unless you've fallen into a black hole, but that’s another story).

study between Google and Galaxy found that 74% of Australians rely on their mobile phone for browsing just as much as they do their desktop. And, mobile being mobile, this means a user’s environment is constantly changing. We browse on the move; our attention divided, our senses (often) compromised. Where we’re browsing changes and so does who we’re browsing with, and so we all balance some form of impairment in this context.

With that said, context isn’t limited to mobile. No matter where we are or what devices we’re using, there are constant fluctuations in the acuity of our senses and changes to our surroundings. Our attentions, more often than not, default to distracted. By the TV, the kids, a hungry cat walking across your keyboard.

Here’s a snapshot of what I mean

The persona spectrum © Microsoft 2017

This inclusive illustration by Microsoft shows that impairment isn’t necessarily what we might think it is. While almost one in five Australians identify as having a disability, 100% of us can find ourselves in any of these temporary, permanent or situational scenarios at any given time. Ergo, designing for the one in five actually helps 100% of people.

The truth of it is, you should be designing your experiences for accessibility, not because it’s a legal requirement or a feel-good thing to do, but because designing for accessibility creates a better experience for everyone.

And that’s because, by default, accessibility has a context-proof lens built in.

Designing for accessibility – fearlessly

I get it. Deep diving into WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) tends to feel like a pretty daunting place to get started. Instead, here are some simple exercises that will help put you in someone else’s shoes. They’re great for helping you to break free from personal bias and quickly sense check basic accessibility issues that the digital experience might present.

Imagine (or actually do) the following:

  • Pop on a blindfold 
    How would a screen reader relay the information on the screen to a user? Take this a step further and have someone read the content to you just as a screen reader would. This is a great exercise for when you’re assessing hierarchy of content.
  • Stuff your ears with cotton wool 
    What elements of your site will be inaccessible to the hearing-impaired or those whose who find themselves in a noisy environment? Hint: always include captions or a transcript for your video content.
  • Tie your writing hand behind your back 
    How easy is it to manoeuvre around the experience with one shaky hand? Are active elements conveniently located or are they well-spaced? Is there an easier way for a user to engage with active elements? Could face recognition, gestures or voice commands simplify the experience?
  • Browse while riding a unicycle 
    Is the key information presented to you easy to scan, even when your attention’s divided? Can you easily get the gist of where you need to go and the actions you can take?

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. For a more robust assessment, the below links are home to some excellent resources:


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